Florida’s New Drone Law: Fulltime Employment for Lawyers?

Nothing can kill the growth of the commercial drone industry so much as bad laws and misguided regulations. And much as we discuss the issues surrounding federal regulation of drones, the industry faces equally difficult challenges at the state level, where an odd coalition of reactionaries from both the left and far-right have clamored for strict regulations on the use of drones, if not outright bans. State legislators are feeling the heat.

The Lawyers are lapping at my doorstep!Enter Florida’s new drone law.

Last week, Governor Scott signed Senate Bill 766 – called the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act (“FUSA”) – into law.  This new law adds language to Florida’s existing drone law, found at Section 934.50, Florida Statutes, providing for additional protections against drone surveillance, as well as providing a private right of action for violations.

Some have warned that the law will lead to a wave of litigation. For reasons that I will explain in a moment, I am not so sure. In any event, the law is definitely an example of poor draftsmanship, and it unfairly targets drone technology in a way that seems hypocritical. But its scope does not appear to be as broad as others have suggested.

First, some background:

In Florida v. Riley, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a police officer did not conduct a “search”, for purposes of the Fourth Amendment, when he observed a marijuana grow house from a helicopter that crossed the defendant’s property at 400 feet AGL (does that number seem familiar?). Relying on its prior opinion in California v. Ciraolo, in which police inspected the backyard of a house from a fixed-wing aircraft that was flying at 1,000 feet, the Court reasoned that “the home and its curtilage are not necessarily protected from inspection that involves no physical invasion.”

One might not like it, but for nearly three decades Riley and Ciraolo have been the standard for what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy on property as viewed from the air.

Thus, perhaps the most striking aspect of Florida’s FUSA is that it creates a “drone exception” to Riley and Ciraolo:

A person, a state agency, or a political subdivision as defined in s. 11.45 may not use a drone equipped with an imaging device to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image in violation of such persons reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent. For purposes of this section, a person is presumed to have a reasonable expectation of privacy on his or her privately owned real property if he or she is not observable by persons located at ground level in a place where they have a legal right to be, regardless of whether he or she is observable from the air with the use of a drone.

In other words, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy if you’re observed from a manned aircraft, but you do have such an expectation of privacy when observed from a drone. Go figure.

The statute contains a number of exceptions, such as when law enforcement has obtained a search warrant or when exigent circumstances exist. It also enumerates exceptions for commercial operations, such as land surveys, power grid inspections and, oddly enough, cargo delivery.

But the first commercial exception paragraph is likely to cause some problems.  It starts out well enough, excepting images captured:

By a person or an entity engaged in a business or profession licensed by the state, or by an agent, employee, or contractor thereof, if the drone is used only to perform reasonable tasks within the scope of practice or activities permitted under such person’s or entity’s license.

That would seem to cover realtors, doctors, and lawyers, right?  I’m just kidding. Lawyers and doctors don’t really need to spy on people.

Well, actually, lawyers do hire “agents” and “contractors” to spy on people. They’re called private investigators. And herein lies a problem:

However, this exception does not apply to a profession in which the licensee’s authorized scope of practice includes obtaining information about the identity, habits, conduct, movements, whereabouts, affiliations, associations, transactions, reputation, or character of any society, person, or group of persons.

In other words, if you’re a licensed private investigator, No exception for you! Which, by extension, means that lawyers also don’t get an exception. Unless they’re lawyers for the state, in which case they can get a search warrant. See how that works?

Speaking as a litigation professional, this is rather silly. Private Investigators are often called to check on whether someone is actually residing at a particular residence, or is hiding out to avoid service of process. Perhaps the legislature couldn’t figure out how to carve a narrow enough exception, or perhaps too many legislatures have been burned by divorce lawyers?

But the part that’s causing a lot of heartburn is the civil remedies provision:

The owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of privately owned real property may initiate a civil action for compensatory damages for violations of this section and may seek injunctive relief to prevent future violations of this section against a person, state agency, or political subdivision that violates paragraph (3)(b). In such action, the prevailing party is entitled to recover reasonable attorney fees from the nonprevailing party based on the actual and reasonable time expended by his or her attorney billed at an appropriate hourly rate and, in cases in which the payment of such a fee is contingent on the outcome, without a multiplier, unless the action is tried to verdict, in which case a multiplier of up to twice the actual value of the time expended may be awarded in the discretion of the trial court.

This sounds scary, and it is. Attorney’s fees typically add up to an amount that is many times an actual damages award for these kind statutory remedies.  Some have suggested that the mere threat of a civil lawsuit poses a major hindrance to the development of commercial drones.  But does it really?

Let’s go back and look at what the statute prohibits: It says that a person

may not use a drone equipped with an imaging device to record an image of privately owned real property or of the owner, tenant, occupant, invitee, or licensee of such property with the intent to conduct surveillance on the individual or property captured in the image. . . .

So, a plaintiff would have to prove that the defendant had a specific intent to conduct surveillance on the person or property captured in the image. In other words, you’re not liable for capturing images by mistake, or even incidentally. You have to have a specific intent to conduct surveillance.

That is likely to be a very tough standard for a plaintiff to meet. Discerning plaintiff lawyers (and there are many, believe it or not) might decide it’s not worth the trouble.

But keep in mind that (a) there are a lot of hungry lawyers on the street; (b) questions regarding intent are put to juries; and (c) juries have a way of being unpredictable. So, you might have a lot to think about.

If you have concerns about compliance with Florida’s new FUSA, don’t hesitate to drop me a line or give me a call, via the “Contact” page at the top.

UPDATE: Every so often, I need to remind readers that nothing on this blog should be taken as legal advice. My posts are intended to provide the public with general information, and some light academic discussion. If you need legal advice, please call a lawyer.

Stop worrying, learn to love drones *

Writing for the Brookings Institution, drone policy expert Gregory McNeal has published a report urging Congress and state legislatures not to overreact when it comes to privacy concerns over drones. McNeal argues, and we agree, that a “technology-centric” approach to legislating privacy protections is misguided, and ends up missing the point:

[Various] legislative efforts have been aimed at restricting the government’s use of drone technology, while largely allowing the government to conduct identical surveillance when not using drone technology. This absurd anachronism is intentional, as privacy advocates have explicitly chosen to capitalize on the public interest and attention associated with the demonization of drone technology as a way to achieve legislative victories. These advocates are admittedly not focused on more sensible legislation that addresses harms irrespective of the technology used.

He notes that current unmanned systems are actually not as effective at surveillance as manned aircraft (which consistent with a point that we have previously made, here). He also points out that banning law enforcement from using drones, in the absence of a warrant, leads to absurd results. For example, using drones to monitor the Boston Marathon – a public event – might benefit public safety. But the law doesn’t allow the Boston PD to do so unless it obtains a warrant by demonstrating probable cause in an application:

That application would need to define with particularity the place to be searched or the persons to be surveilled. All of this would be required to observe people gathered in a public place, merely because the observation was taking place from a drone, rather than from an officer on a rooftop or in a helicopter. In a circumstance like a marathon, this probable cause showing will be difficult for the police to satisfy. After all, if the police knew who in the crowd was a potential bomber, they would arrest those individuals.

Even more absurd is that

in the states where drones have been banned (unless accompanied by a warrant), the police have not been prohibited from using any other type of surveillance equipment—just drones. This technology-centric approach has done little to protect privacy, but will certainly harm public safety, depriving law enforcement of a tool that they could use to protect people.

After reviewing a series of court opinions governing the current state of aerial surveillance, McNeal goes on to provide some recommendations for how legislatures should think about their approaches to drone surveillance regulations. Read the whole thing.

*In what seems like a reference to “Dr. Strangelove,” arstechnica distills the message to “stop worrying, learn to love drones.”

Watching the watchers

Perhaps this guy has way too much time on his hands, but he’s conducting an interesting experiment in citizen vigilance:

A South Bay man who routinely records police activity has started using an unmanned drone to help with filming, just the latest example of how law enforcement is increasingly encountering the technology on the civilian side.

Of course, the FAA quotes never cease to give me a chuckle:

The FAA estimated in a report that there could be 7,500 civilian hobbyist drones in use within five years. Federal officials said they hope to craft clearer civilian drone rules by 2015, but some experts said that’s too optimistic a timeline.

Ya’ think?